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Part 2: A look back at Family Development and to its future

Head shot of Karen Shirer
Karen Shirer, associate dean

In my last blog post, I wrote a brief history of my career and a few the lessons I learned over the years as I prepare for retirement. In today’s blog, the focus turns to the Center for Family Development where I highlight significant events and share ideas on how to sustain and grow.

Looking Back at Family Development

My tenure as associate dean began on January 2, 2007. When I reflect on my time here, key events shaped the center. Here are a few of those events:

2007: Hired an evaluation specialist, Mary Marczak.
Dean Durgan received funds to support an evaluation specialist for each of the Extension centers. Her goal centered on improving the outcomes of our programs and demonstrating their impact and effectiveness. U of M Extension was one of the first Extension services in the country to make this kind of commitment to showing our public value.

2007: Implemented a new promotion system for Extension educators.
Early in this effort, we learned we needed to support Extension educators through the promotion process. We partnered with the Center for Community Vitality to offer informational webinars on the different aspects of the promotion process and eventually set up a cohort model called the Promotion Action Group or PAG. These efforts continue today under Renee Pardello’s leadership and make a significant difference for helping EEs through the process.

2008: Suffered the worst global economic recession since the Great Depression.
The recession has had long-term effects and has made it very important to secure additional external funds and generate revenue to sustain and grow our programs.

2008: Conducted strategic direction setting.
Trish Olson talked about this work in her interview presentation, noting that an update is likely needed (I agree). You can find these materials on the center’s Intranet page at:

2009: Sponsored a 10-day study tour to Mexico for faculty, staff and educators.
This effort laid the ground work for our commitment to effectively reach immigrant families in Minnesota.

2010: Moved to the 4th floor of Coffey Hall from McNeal Hall.
We joined the health and nutrition team who were already in Coffey Hall, bringing the campus team to one location.

Coffey hall in the summer time.
Coffey Hall

2012: Offered a University program for early retirement incentive to employees.
About half of the family resiliency team retired or resigned. We were able to hire a number of new Extension educators including Silvia Alvarez de Davila, Mary Jo Katras (now a program leader) and Sharon Powell.

2013: Restructured the health and nutrition programs due to an unexpected 27 percent budget cut to SNAP Ed on January 1.
This event was one of the most difficult and painful parts of my tenure at U of M but was unavoidable and resulted in a more dynamic and flexible program. My heart still aches for those who lost their positions as well as for those who stayed; we all experienced the pain and trauma of re-organization.

2015: Created a new leadership model for the center.
Mary Marczak took on leadership for FD urban programs as well as CYFC, and applied research and evaluation. Trish Olson became the director of FD programs, oversaw our business planning process, and supervised program leaders among other very important tasks.

2017: Initiated the CYFC scholar-in-residence program.
Dr. Jenifer McGuire, a faculty member and Extension specialist, served as the first visiting scholar with a focus on supporting transgender youth. Response to her team’s work across the state was strong and scholar in residence program continues today.

2018: Obtained federal funding from two sources to address the rural opioid crisis in Minnesota.
Mary Jo Katras is leading this community-based effort with the Center for Community Vitality and the U of M Duluth College of Pharmacy.

What surprised you in this list of center milestones? What would you add to the list? An initial version of the milestones was shared with center staff and faculty at Fall Program Conference. The group had an opportunity to add their own ideas, some of which I added. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list but to show how events have shaped and changed the center over time. Because the center is a dynamic system, this kind of change will continue into the future.

How Do We Sustain FD as a Resilient Organization?

As I reflect on the milestones, I am struck by the idea of resilience. There were difficult times and setbacks – SNAP Ed budget cuts and EE retirements to name two – but we recovered from those setbacks and in some ways are even stronger. How do we sustain and strengthen the resiliency that we have?

At Fall Program Conference, I also shared information from an article by D. Robb (2000) on what makes organizations resilient. He describes resilient organizations as able to sustain their public value over time by doing two things at the same time:
  1. Delivering high-quality and effective programs. Robb calls these “performance skills.”
  2. Innovating and adapting to rapid, turbulent changes in the world around us, including new technologies. Robb describes these as “adaptation skills.” 
When an organization is resilient, it can:
  • Create structure and dissolve it when it no longer works.
  • Provide safety during times of great change.
  • Manage emotional consequences of change, including anxiety and grief.
  • Learn, develop and grow.
The author goes on to describe the following performance skills that support delivering effective programs:
  • Employees know how to carry out their jobs and do.
  • There are clear relationships and boundaries between functions, teams, managers and individuals.
  • Efficient fiscal, human resources and evaluation processes align with the programmatic needs.
  • There is an effective performance management system.
  • The focus is on concrete and specific, on action planning and problem solving.
Adaptation skills include:
  • The ability to vision.
  • Embracing a diversity and wide range of viewpoints.
  • Scanning for environmental change and determining what it means for structure and new programs.
  • Creativity, experimentation, curiosity, knowing how to learn.
  • Emotional intelligence, self-reflection and humility (being teachable).
As you scan these two skill sets, where do you feel most comfortable working? Performance? Adaptation? What skills would you like to develop? What skills do you have that you can contribute to the organization’s resilience?

My comfort is highest with the adaptation skills. I am always looking for the next best thing for Family Development whether it is funding, partners or trends. I also love to learn and experiment. But I’ve learned over the years that an organization (the center) needs both skill sets to be effective.

An example of how the center balanced performance and adaptation comes from the milestones above related to the 2007 promotion efforts. We learned that first spring that more training, support and mentoring were needed for Extension Educators if they were to be successful in the promotion process. We used our adaptation skills of reflection and learning to create innovative responses to the needs we saw. And we relied heavily on performance skills to implement the required processes I described related to webinars and PAG.

Looking to the Future for Family Development

For 2019 and beyond, the future is yet to be determined but the capacity has been put in place and is available to be developed in order to ensure a resilient center. Dr. Trish Olson, as new associate dean, will be a confident and highly skilled leader. My call to you is to welcome her to new role and to support her leadership, making her tenure as associate dean a productive and inspiring one for all.

Lastly, thank you for the opportunity to serve as associate dean that last 12 years. I will miss you all and the amazing work you all do.

Jean Illsley Clarke and Karen Shirer at Karen's retirement party.
Jean Illsley Clarke and Karen Shirer at Karen's retirement party.

Robb, D. (2000). Building resilient organizations. OD Practitioner, 32, 27-32.

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